After I read the article about the February 5 Upper Providence Board of Supervisors Meeting in the Times Herald, I knew I had to watch the video. There hasn’t been a regular news reporter at an Upper Providence Board meeting in well over two years, so I knew immediately that he was summoned by one of the Board members to witness something contentious. I finally got around to watching the video this past weekend, and it doesn’t disappoint.
As a former Supervisor thoroughly enjoying my forced retirement from elected life, I feel I can bring some unique, if totally biased and completely subjective, political insight as to what is going on here, so I offer the following UPT Board Meeting Notes as a quasi-regular feature of this blog.
With apologies in advance for the length of this post, in my defense, the meetings have now practically doubled in length so that everyone gets a chance to grandstand, even some of our residents.
The video cannot be embedded so the link can be found here.
Public Grandstander # 1: Joe Haney
Pro-Tip: If you are a woman in politics, never let your husband come in and state your policy positions, or worse, have him “stick up” for you because he thinks another Board member is putting you under too much pressure. It makes you look weak. But that’s exactly what Joe Haney, Helen Calci’s husband, does at the 11:25 mark in the meeting video. In my opinion, Haney’s thinly disguised theatrical performance in his role of “just another concerned citizen” undermines Calci’s authority as a duly elected Supervisor and plants a question in my mind as to who is actually controlling her vote.
Haney was the second public commenter at this meeting and he emoted from a prepared script. He pontificated about the Dems favorite stalking horse, the new Administration Building, and bemoaned the budget decisions of 20 years ago. Getting to the meat of his performance, Haney implies that the old Board chose to “punt” the ambulance decision to the new Board in order to avoid responsibility and further implies that Township staff opinions have been controlled through fear of repercussions. In the most unintentionally hilarious and awkwardly worded lines of his script, Haney complains about being “aggressively lobbied” and “pushed” to make a decision in these first few meetings. It never seems to occur to him that these are issues that should really only affect his wife; nobody is lobbying Joe Haney or asking him to make a decision on anything. Calci, not her husband, got elected to make the difficult decisions.
As Vagnozzi later notes, Haney’s assertions about the previous Board “not acting” on the ambulance issue are ill informed and not quite accurate.
Two things about this: Vagnozzi has every right to lobby board members to get his agenda passed; that’s what he was elected to do. Having the spouse of a Supervisor come into a public meeting and whine about being put under pressure just exposes fear and weakness. Like a shark swimming along who suddenly senses a fish in distress, you can almost see Vagnozzi change directions. It is no surprise he later requests to work with Calci on the 60 day EMS Education Plan for New Democrats.
Secondly, history did not begin the day this new Board took office. After almost two solid years of debate, research, and vetting of this issue, all of which is a matter of public record, the previous Board did not in any way “punt” this issue. But more on that to follow.
ACT 209 Committee and Administrative Code
An inconvenience of the agenda order, the next discussion item after The Joe Haney Show was the Act 209 Committee appointments. It is a matter of public record, but for some reason, Pearson, that paragon of transparency, specifically wanted to avoid reading the names in the meeting, so here they are:
- Chris Caggiano (Planning Commission Member)
- Bob Heist (Planning Commission Member)
- Sarah Glenn (Newly Appointed Planning Commission Member)
- Lee Milligan (retired assistant township manager and building official)
- Don Gracia (Local Business Owner)
- Paul Newlin (Former Planning Commission member, real estate professional/developer)
- Jim Bladel (Real estate professional/developer)
- Tom Wright (New Planning Commission Member)
- Joe Haney (Resident and spouse of Helen Calci)
Around 18:00 into the meeting, there is a discussion on the Administrative Code and after Pearson says there is consensus on not establishing “standing committees,” he essentially does just that in a far weaker way by unilaterally suggesting only one supervisor (instead of the two that had been previously recommended by the Township Manager, Tim Tieperman) be responsible for specializing in each different area (ie. Public Works, Park & Rec, Planning & Zoning, Fire, EMS & Police, etc.). The problems inherent this structure are obvious: in a Board that does not get along yet, there is no second set of eyes to confirm or contradict what a particular Supervisor assigned to each area may recommend.
Cellco Cell Tower: “Let them do their thing.”
There is significant opposition to placing this cell tower at 248 Rittenhouse Road, which is in a residential area. When Cellco came in with this non-conforming use last year, the Board concurred with the surrounding residents and voted to send the Solicitor to the ZHB to oppose the application.
At 23:37 Pearson announced that he is not in favor of sending the Solicitor to oppose the zoning application, preferring instead to punt to the ZHB and “let them do their thing.” This move is typical of Pearson, who never wants to get his hands dirty by making an actual tough decision. The residents who appeared to speak on this issue practically begged the Board to vote once again to send the Solicitor to oppose this application. Those residents were told by Pearson that they should “feel free” to voice their opinions at a ZHB meeting. In response, the residents told the Board that they have attended no less than five ZHB meetings, but Cellco’s repeated continuances have created somewhat of a problem for them. The residents have to continually arrange for babysitting and adjust schedules only to find the meeting has been once again continued once they arrive.
I suspect that these repeated Cellco continuances are a strategy by the applicant to wear down the residents’ opposition. It’s clear however, that the residents themselves are on their own with this issue and should expect no support from the Township.
It should be noted that the owner of the property where the cell tower is proposed stands to gain financially from the placement of the tower. It should further be noted that Pearson’s long time fiancee, Gail Latch, is a member of the Zoning Hearing Board.
Ambulance Discussion: “But we’ve only been here for 35 days!”
To reiterate an earlier point, the previous Board spent two years vetting the ambulance issue. Pearson’s repeated whining that, “we’ve only been here for 35 days” as an excuse to not make a decision on this issue is, quite frankly, a cop out. There are reports, meeting minutes, notes, proposals, staff recommendations and videos to reference, not to mention, much of this debate occurred while these new supervisors were in attendance at the meetings. Saying they need another 60 days to “study” this issue is the very definition of “kicking the can down the road,” and is a dereliction of their duty to public safety. It is not the fault of the residents, nor should the residents be made to suffer, for the ignorance of the incoming Board. It is the Board’s responsibility to do their homework.
As a matter of background, the previous Board was about to vote on the ambulance service provider, and then I lost the election. It is a matter of municipal law that an outgoing Board cannot commit an incoming Board to a contract approved after the election. That is the very definition of “lame duck,” and the only reason why that decision was not put forth for a vote. It was not, as Mr. Haney suggested earlier, a plot to somehow “punt” this difficult issue to the new Board.
If people want to take issue with the order of building projects (administration building before EMS building); fine: I did too. That is why I voted against the 2017 budget.
Laurie Higgins’ was so threatened by Vagnozzi, she wouldn’t even let him complete a sentence, and continuously talked over him. Her objection, that “no other municipality owns their own ambulance,” is lame and to resident Michael Fil’s point, so what? Why must we do everything other Townships are doing? I expected more imagination from the woman who wanted horse rider height walk buttons installed at intersections and to grow grass on Township Buildings’ rooftops.
Meanwhile, John Pearson is in a low grade panic over having to make a decision that will have actual consequences. First he makes the legitimate point that if we put a centrally located ambulance in UPT and award a contract to a current provider (Friendship, Trappe or Lower Providence) that it will cut into the existing service areas of the remaining companies, and therefore negatively impact the financial stability of those companies and the communities they serve. But then, in the next breath, Pearson repeatedly and aggressively assures resident Michael Fil that UPT will indeed be getting a centralized ambulance, which directly contradicts the only objection he has made thus far. I can best sum up Pearson’s ambulance argument as follows: I am against implementing a centralized ambulance because it will harm the community, but I’m also in favor of implementing one, just not for 60 days.
We can assume that Helen Calci’s original positions on the ambulance were voiced by her husband.
In short, for a Board who claims they need 60 additional days “to study this issue further,” they sure demonstrated some strongly held opinions against it.
The entire discussion of the ambulance was marked by agitation and high emotion by all Board members except Vagnozzi, who was the only one who appeared calm, rational and reasonable. It was hard to believe that he was the minority supervisor at this meeting.
Public Grandstander # 2: Kevin Holohan
Kevin Holohan has already started blabbing to people about his intention to primary Phil Barker in 2019 (should Barker decide to run again) so whenever he approaches the podium at a Township Meeting, residents should keep this in mind.
First, a little background: The Comprehensive Plan update was approved by the Board in 2010. In 2011, that Board, consisting of Bob Fieo, Phil Barker and John Pearson, spent a good portion of the year planning for a new Administration Complex Building (outlined in the Comp Plan Update) that was to cost some $6 million.
According to a story he told me, somewhere around the end of 2011, Pearson got cold feet about the price tag of the project and minutes before heading into the meeting where the vote to approve the project was on the agenda, he told Fieo and Barker that he would oppose it. It happened so late in the year that when I examined the 2012 budget prior to being sworn in, the $6 million expense was still listed in that document, which I had the Township Manager correct. But ultimately, the project was scuttled prior to my tenure which began in January, 2012 and Pearson was proud of the fact that he was the one who scuttled it. Now, I’m not sure where Holohan got his information that a half a million dollars was spent on pre-construction soft costs for this project, but my past experience with Holohan prevents me from trusting any assertion he makes on dollar figures.
That all being said, Pearson’s “I don’t know what you’re talking about” response to Holohan’s statement about the scuttled Administration Building is either a bald faced lie, or evidence of another one of Pearson’s “senior moments” he likes to use as an excuse for his lack of knowledge.
Holohan’s meandering bloviation on his proposal to reallocate developer funds into operating is a non-starter and poorly thought out. Again, I remind you, he’s already begun running for office, so my impression is that he’s trying hard to impress the audience with a mighty word-salad of financial terms and suggestions that have zero possibility of ever being proven as non-viable. I have first-hand experience in being trapped in a Holohan word-salad and it’s like being stuck in a feedback loop. In my experience, he would immediately draw a conclusion, then work backwards to try to insert facts that back up that conclusion, resulting in a wholly disorganized and half-baked dissertation like the one we witnessed here.
In the one breath, he states that the Township should reallocate Open Space money and divert it to subsidizing EMS costs, and in the next breath, he’s talking about how the Township is 90% built out and these fees should have been changed 20 years ago. So the problem inherent in this suggestion, if it is not already obvious to you, Gentle Reader, is that the developer money is drying up (we are 90% built out; that figure is true) and since those funds are not a steady or reliable source of revenue, by Holohan’s own admission, why would anyone even propose relying on that money to fund critical Emergency Services? Developer funds—indeed any funds or fees not reliably repeatable— should rightly be categorized as Capital revenue to be used for Capital projects, not as a separate bucket to offset ongoing Operating Costs.
The Grandstander in Chief: John Pearson
It was hard to keep track of how many times John Pearson lost control of this meeting (I counted five, but I lost count somewhere in the middle of the ambulance discussion), beginning with his insufferable new practice of reading “inspirational words of wisdom,” an ego-indulging pretension which might be more tolerable if only he was a better speaker (BTW, John, Its Ralph Waldo EMERSON, not Ralph Waldo ANDERSON) and if they could keep the meetings to a reasonable length of time.
Numerous times during the course of this meeting, Pearson’s position, or rather, his lack of position, was reinforced with some sort of anecdote (punctuated with a generous helping of “like’s”, “eeehhhm’s” and “Ok’s”) on how this issue affects him personally. In support of his non-position on the cell phone tower, he explains how his phone drops his calls when he goes outside (it’s because he lives under the shadow of a large rock cliff, but he apparently hasn’t figured that out). In support of his non-position on the ambulance, he stated he needs emergency services more than anyone, because he had a heart attack (with the implication being that if he is ok with the gaps in service, so should everyone else be.) Every issue is explained in terms of how it affects John.
With the exception of Democratic Party hack Preston Leutwiler, liberal stalwart Art Lebofsky (whose every partisan suggestion of the last several months has already been hastily implemented by this Board), and Helen Calci’s husband, Pearson treated every other public commenter with disrespect and some with outright hostility. Even a frequent flyer like Joe Peters, who I daresay has probably attended more meetings than Pearson himself in the last two years, was treated with aggressive open contempt. The concerns of the community opposed to the Cellco tower were dismissed with Pearson basically washing his hands of any responsibility of representing their wishes. Pearson actually shouted at Michael Fil, the president of the White Springs homeowner’s association, accusing Mr. Fil of “threatening” him, when all Fil said was that he was going to hold him accountable.
Of course, we should all understand by now that being held accountable is a threat to Pearson.
Numerous times during the course of the last two meetings, Pearson has uttered the phrase, “You are not going to pin me down.” This is an odd phrase to be used by an elected official, whose very job is to “pin down” issues and make tough decisions. It is especially jarring coming from a two term Supervisor who should at least have a rudimentary understanding of the job to which he was elected.
By far the most objectionable incident occurs near the end of the meeting, during an exchange between Kevin Holohan and Pearson. When Holohan starts grilling Pearson about the scuttled Administration Building, Pearson tries to shut him up by calling “time” on him and Holohan correctly responds by pointing out he’s merely answering the question Pearson asked him. When Pearson finally realizes he’s boxed in, he turns to Vagnozzi and says, “Al, call off your dog.” The audience audibly gasps after this outburst.
Now, it’s true that Holohan was spouting off some well-worn Vagnozzi talking points, but the public at large does not know this. Most of them don’t know who Kevin Holohan is, that he has political ambitions or that he is Vagnozzi’s neighbor and friend. To them, he’s just another resident and for the Chairman of the Board to call one of his constituents a “dog” from the dais is quite shocking and entirely inappropriate.
Overall, the Democrats seemed edgy, defensive, and unprofessional throughout the entire meeting.
And Vagnozzi played them all like a fiddle.